|The exterior of Lyme Park doubled as Pemberley in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.
(Wikimedia Commons; photo by Mike Peel, CC-BY-SA-4.0)
I’ve noticed that Jane Austen doesn’t go into a lot of details about food in her novels. But there’s one meal in Pride and Prejudice that’s described in some detail: the refreshments Mr. Darcy serves Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt when they pay a social visit to Pemberley.
By this point in the story, Elizabeth has roundly rejected Darcy’s awkward and rather insulting proposal of marriage. But Elizabeth’s hard feelings towards Darcy begin to melt when she sees him in his natural surroundings at Pemberley, his impressive country home.
Austen describes the informal meal like this:
“The next variation which their visit afforded was produced by the entrance of servants with cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season; but this did not take place till after many a significant look and smile from Mrs. Annesley to Miss Darcy had been given, to remind her of her post. There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines and peaches soon collected them around the table.”
“For though they could not all talk, they could all eat” – if that isn’t a romantic description of the shyness of awakening love, I don’t know what is!
Though this meal is set during the Regency era, it seems like something easily put together today. In fact, here is my attempt at recreating Darcy’s spread, although on a much smaller scale:
|My recreation of the refreshment table at Pemberley
Not bad, if I do say so myself. About the only thing missing from my set-up, besides an ample quantity of food, is the servants. I can almost imagine Mr. Darcy standing stiffly by the table, watching with yearning eyes as Elizabeth selects a delicate morsel or two.
But what kind of cake would we see at Pemberley at this time in history? One thing is certain: the kitchen staff wouldn’t have been able to pop down to the supermarket and buy a pack of muffins.
No, more than likely the Pemberley cook would have chosen a recipe from her trusty cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Which far exceeds any Thing of the Kind yet published, written by “a Lady.”
The “Lady” behind this project was Hannah Glasse, an English housewife, who wrote her cookbook primarily as an instruction manual for servants. She published it herself in 1747, and it was a hit with the public for at least a hundred years, going through 40 editions.
Along with her contemporaries, Jane Austen would have certainly been familiar with Hannah Glasse’s recipes. This book was an indispensable reference in households across Great Britain.
And the topics covered in the book went far beyond food. They included recipes for ridding a home of pests, cleaning fabric, cures for the bite of a rabid dog, and even a powder to treat heartburn, which could be necessary if you overindulged in Hannah’s culinary creations.
Hannah’s book was also popular in America, both before and after the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington all owned copies.
The Art of Cookery made Hannah Glasse famous, and her fame as a cookbook author is even more noteworthy because of the prejudice she had to surmount as a female. Rumors abounded that her book must have been written by a man because it was too well-organized and thorough—basically too good— to have been written by a woman.
Even Samuel Johnson, one of the most influential literary critics of the 18th century, held that opinion. According to his biographer James Boswell, Johnson said that “Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery.”
It’s a shame Glasse didn’t include a recipe for crow in her book – it would have been a good dish to serve Johnson and other critics as The Art of Cookery became a bona fide bestseller.
|Title page of the 1777 edition (Wikimedia Commons)
But what prompted Hannah to write her groundbreaking book? The main reason was that she needed the money. However, in her introductory note to the reader, Glasse explains her other motivation: she wanted to improve the cooking skills of servants, which was a novel idea at the time:
"I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought to be worth their while to write upon: but as I have both seen, and found, by experience, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken it upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable; and I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of Cookery cannot miss of being very good ones.”
So, back to that summer afternoon at Pemberley: I wonder what kind of cake our fictional cook might have made to serve Darcy’s guests?
If she had consulted Chapter 15 of The Art of Cookery, “Of making Cakes, &c.” she would have been presented with a lot of choices.
For example, she might have decided to make a "rich cake" for the occasion. All she would have needed is four pounds of flour, seven pounds of currants, six pounds of butter, two pounds of Jordan almonds, four pounds of eggs, three pounds of sugar, a bunch of spices (including cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger), wine, brandy and “sweet-meats to your liking,” – as long as you like orange, lemon, and citron. Now that’s a rich cake indeed!
Or, if the cook had a supply of caraway seeds she might settle on a seed cake. Hannah’s "rich seed cake, called the nun's cake" also calls for lots of butter (four pounds) along with 35 eggs (16 of which have to be separated, yolks from whites). However, for this cake, the cook had better be prepared to beat the batter (by hand, of course) for “two hours together.”
Two hours! You’ve got to admit, that’s true devotion to baking. It also sounds like quite a workout —you could really build up strong arm muscles that way.
My seed cakes are made with poppy seeds instead of caraway seeds, and they didn’t take me any time at all, just a trip to the market. But I’m sure Hannah’s cakes would have tasted better – or at least a lot richer.
And who knows? It could be that a bite of a delicious buttery cake laced with brandy and wine was what turned the tide of Elizabeth’s affections toward Mr. Darcy.
It certainly couldn’t have hurt!
|Photo from Pixabay
Note: If you'd like to read The Art of Cookery, you can get the whole text on Google Books.